Profit over equality? Another outsourced contract fails

Atos, the company awarded work capability assessments has terminated its contract early and agreed financial settlement with the DWP. If you were on benefits due to long-term illness, you had to have your back to work assessment by this company.

For Deaf people, Atos created additional barriers to these work assessments, as they did for disabled people.

Before you could even get an assessment you had to phone a number to book an appointment. There were no alternative means of communication. Not even through a dusty old textphone.

It’s medical assessors, not trained doctors, were known for testing Deafness by asking people to turn around and shouting at them to see if they were Deaf.

Interpreters used for these appointments were rarely qualified or registered.

An outsourcing nightmare bites the dust. If only the same would happen with the MoJ contract for interpreting.

If only government contracts had stipulated within them the needs for equality over profit.

If only contracts would be monitored to check that what big companies say they will do, actually happens.

If only.

Access to Government

A Deaf person may need to contact the government for any number of reasons depending on their circumstances. Those applying for the new Personal Independence Payment benefit fill in a written form and must state a telephone number to be called on to arrange a medical assessment. The company sourced to run these applications, ATOS, is well known for its incapabilities and the inherent discrimination they are causing via their application processes. Another outsourcing blip. At the medical assessments the assessors, who are not doctors, have a list of questions. If a person has stated they are Deaf they are asked to face the wall whilst the assessor shouts at them to prove they are Deaf. Not only is this ridiculous it is embarrassing, discriminatory and surely above all this task proves nothing.

Dealing with job centres are bad enough if you can hear. There are often numerous phone numbers, different departments deal with different tasks and finding the right one is a stressful experience. Often those with queries are told to use the phone. Not helpful for anyone who is Deaf. On top of this, the contract for interpreting services is another outsourcing nightmare with unregistered signers being used to save money. A false economy when it does not resolve the communication barrier and if it leaves a Deaf person more likely to be out of work, it just costs the state more money. Some of the employment schemes the government funds refuse to book interpreters and the staff that work in these private companies often have never met a Deaf person. The ones run specifically for Deaf people are not necessarily any better with evidence of unregistered users of sign language being used for calls to companies and job interviews. Not empowering for the Deaf person and much less likely to get them the best job they can get.

Access to work, for those who do not know, is a funding scheme in the UK designed to help Deaf and disabled people into work and enable them to stay there should be the highlight of the UK system for Deaf people. Not all countries have funding for interpreters at work. However, despite this being the UK government’s largest underspent budget, it can be incredibly hard and stressful for a Deaf person to even make a claim, let alone get interpreters for their agreed rate, speak to their advisor, fill out the claim forms or if necessary complain or appeal a decision.

There are some well-known cases of fraud in the Deaf community that are coming to court and several agencies or organisations have been investigated. The knock on effect being tighter rules on claims and some rather strange recommendations that are now suggested by Access to Work advisors. It is clear neither Deaf people nor interpreters were consulted on whether these would work. For example, a Deaf person awarded with over 30 hours of interpreting per week is now being asked to employ an interpreter rather than use freelance interpreters, who are generally cheaper than agency staff. This may work for some, for others it brings the added problems of HR and administration as well as the 15% on costs associated with providing someone with employment in paying their pension contributions, training, registration and insurance. What happens too if the employed interpreter goes on long-term sick, maternity or paternity leave? This passes the burden of responsibility or costs unfairly to the employer or sometimes directly to the Deaf person. Interpreters are familiar with attending job interviews where it is clear the Deaf person will not get employed as no matter whether the Deaf person is the best candidate for the job or how much information is given about Access to Work the employer sees costs or responsibility as an extra hurdle and the job is from that moment lost.

It seems that the more the guidelines change to benefit those running the government funded scheme, the more discrimination occurs for Deaf people. An irony as the scheme is designed to alleviate it.

There are national guidelines in existence but the local business centres tend to create their own. It is unknown as to whether this is due to staff turnover, ignorance or a lack of internal communications. For years reports have surfaced of Deaf staff in the same team, with similar jobs, working similar hours, with the same Access to Work adviser who can all be awarded vastly different rates for interpreters. This can often leave one with the best Registered Interpreters and excellent access to their working environment and others in the team having to use ‘signers’ who are not yet even fluent.

Some Deaf people are told to use government recommended agencies. These are usually those having won government contracts or status as a preferred supplier. In the usual vein when it comes to outsourcing, this equates to a cheaper surface cost for this government department, less quality for everyone else. ‘Surface cost’ as the real cost is often not cheaper than using an interpreter, the personnel provided can not do the job at hand and the Deaf person does not get the access they were supposed to get resulting in a waste of funding.

None of this blogpost will be new to any Deaf person or interpreter in the UK. What it highlights is how blanket government policy in the UK can be counter-productive. The UK could be the envy of the world when it comes to access to government services for Deaf people but we seem to have slipped back in time. Internationally Deaf people are getting more access, here it seems to go backwards. In a recent challenge a spokesperson from Access to Work said no Deaf people had ever complained. It could be because Deaf people do not complain as they do not want to lose the claim they have fought hard to get. The other obvious reason is because there is no access to the complaints system.

Five simple recommendations for government departments:

1) Ensure contractors are not going to discriminate against those using your services.

2) Only advocate the use of Registered Interpreters to save money.

3) Properly consult with Deaf and interpreter organisations about how to improve efficiency as well as saving on costs. ASLI have provided information, attended meetings and have had government contacts for years. The BDA is currently asking for evidence. Avoid asking agencies or those likely to make a profit from funding as this will result in skewed information.

4) Improve internal communications so that local departments are aware of national guidelines.

5) Ensure your complaints procedures are accessible for Deaf people.

If you have any other recommendations or information about good practice from your country or field of work please add them to the comments section below.

The fight for rights continues…

Anyone with any link to the Deaf community in the UK can not fail to have noticed the activity surrounding the 10 year anniversary of the official recognition of BSL by the British government. The BDA held a live webcast on the 19th March. Discussions were frantically being had all over Facebook and Twitter.

There was a lot of campaign work which happened to get official recognition. That activity seemed to tail off as if the work was now done though in reality everyone knew this was just one step towards getting full recognition of Deaf rights in the form of full access to services, bilingual education and employment.

Over the last few years since budget cuts affected services on the ground it seems there has been a real sense of apathy in the deaf community. Often the first to notice failings in services, interpreters have been frustrated for years at a lack of interpreters in medical settings and social services. After that courts and police forces suffered at the hands of a large monopoly contract, the repurcussions of which are still in effect. The point is, interpreters see the lack of interpreters daily, not just because working conditions change but they pick up the pieces when they are finally booked.

Lately, there has been an attitude of ‘I didn’t get an interpreter the last time I went to the doctor, it happens all the time now’. What happened to righteous anger?

Well there’s nothing like an anniversary to take stock and look back at what has happened. Many are saying not much. That was the time to galvanise forces, to get a plan together and to take action. It seems that this anniversary will be the impetus now to renew efforts. There was a parliamentary reception, attended by BDA, RAD and Signature, held on the day of the anniversary of the recognition. 50 MPs so far, at the time of writing, have signed an early day motion for the government to report on its efforts and identify the barriers still in existence for BSL users.

In Scotland there have been complaints that throughout discussions on the BSL bill by parliament, the proposed act is becoming weaker and weaker. In England we watch with interest. There may be a BSL Act yet.

With more Deaf people empowered by technology than ever before it could be the perfect time. Recently a new group was set up on Facebook to campaign for a BSL Act in England.

Let’s hope more resources can be found to increase campaigning efforts and that the whole community comes out fighting. Now is the time for less sign and more action.

Get your MP to sign the motion now.

Agencies’ Use of Unregistered Signers

There are three different agencies in operation:

1) Those that provide only Registered Interpreters, for any assignment. They have good reputations and on the whole respect interpreters’ pay and terms and conditions.

2) Those that provide anyone that signs and do not distinguish between a registered interpreter and a signer – see many spoken language agencies fulfilling bookings on the cheap for the NHS and other statutory organisations.

3) Those that sell themselves as the first type and have a reputation for being a proper provider of Registered Interpreters but in reality for certain bookings will provide and convince the consumer that someone unregistered is acceptable for that particular booking.

Most often that is for education. This has now crept towards employment for some agencies and in the case of one agency, with a good reputation in the Deaf community, social work and mental health.

Most disappointingly the last type of agency can apply to those who are supposedly BSL specialists and should know what they are doing.

In fact they do know what they are doing but choose not to do the right thing. By either clouding the issue or somehow thinking they know best or purely because they think they can get away with it. Many experienced interpreters boycott agencies because they have bad working practices or provide CSWs/signers. As an industry (or profession) we have standards of registration in place and many interpreters recognise that. They understand the value of quality and potential damage to their own reputation by association with a bad agency. It is much more preferential to be seen as an interpreter of good standing, associated with the best. It makes good business sense.

Reputation used to be everything whether you were an upcoming interpreter or an agency. It is how you sustain your business, your future and your chosen career. For some this does not appear to be a concern. Again whether they are an individual or a company.

Some excuses seem to be:

‘Well it’s not court interpreting.’ No, but it is still interpreting. A very wise man said once that any interpreter being paid out of public funds should be registered. If you want to book a level 2 signer for your wedding knock yourself out. Registration is the only way to make sure you have someone who has been deemed fit to practice. You wouldn’t choose a car mechanic with no training would you? Or worse, a doctor?

‘They are a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) and therefore great.’
We know from research a CODA does not automatically make a great interpreter. Training and experience does. Everyone knows at least one CODA that is an awful interpreter. It’s time we dispelled this myth. Without the correct training and guidance on making ethical decisions those that have not completed are not yet equipped.

‘I have a right to choose.’ Yes, the right to choose from 800 Registered Interpreters and 200 more trainees. There should be a rating system or more ways of Deaf people assessing the quality of the interpreter. Choosing someone who is nice rather than registered does not give any guarantee. It is a given that some Deaf people would be surprised if they could actually hear the voice over of the interpreter sometimes. Choose a ‘nice’ interpreter who fits with your requirements but is also registered. That way you can complain if it all goes wrong.

‘But I’ve known them for years, and they’re fine.’ How do you know? If they are fine they’d be registered by now.

‘That agency is cheap/cheaper.’ There will be a reason for that.

Many interpreters are voting with their feet. Why work for an agency that puts you in vulnerable positions, that bullies you into taking jobs, that tries to force down fees with unfair prices or will potentially ruin your reputation? Is it not better to be seen as an interpreter of standing, of dignity, of quality?

Consumers, why book an interpreter through an agency like that? Just because they say they are a BSL agency or appear to be Deaf or interpreter led (not all is as it seems). Do you get the interpreter you want or are they never available? Do you still get charged extortionate or at least high fees for what is often someone sitting in an office who cuts and pastes your email request and sends it to a list of interpreters? Do you find you don’t always get good customer service?

Deaf people, interpreters, other consumers of interpreters: it’s time to stand up for quality, standards, reputation. There is still a place for agencies in the BSL world and they will not disappear just yet.

Agency standards and the idea of charter marks or an agency register have been discussed. Until something is set up external to the agencies themselves we are left with an unfortunate situation with (some) agencies behaving badly.

Let’s endorse the agencies and interpreting services who create value for the Deaf community (and not with community services they charge for anyway or funds no-one can access) but the ones who are open to feedback, the ones who support Deaf people in making complaints, the ones who have good working relationships with quality interpreters.

Deaf people and interpreters. There is choice out there. Vote with your feet, there is a right direction in which we should all walk.

Signers at Work: A Glass Ceiling for Deaf People

There is an important point to be explored that our mystery shopper made. There needs to be another look at the trend of falling of standards in interpreter provision that is clearly apparent and why this trend needs to be reversed.

It used to be the norm that an agency would provide a registered and therefore appropriately qualified interpreter for important jobs at the very least. I include in this not just courts and police but, and this is not an exhaustive list: tribunals, mental health, child protection, the trickier medical jobs and important workplace assignments such as interviews. Interviews of the kind used in the mystery survey, where so many agencies were keen to sell a Communication Support Worker (CSW) to the hearing consumer, who they offered ‘would be ‘good enough’.

We have several problems here: the ignorance of the consumer, the willingness of an agency to make the sale at the best profit possible, the lack of control of the Deaf consumer and ultimately the drop in standards we have now encountered due to these problems.

When climbing the career ladder toward registration it used to be oft repeated that registration was the ‘safe to practice’ benchmark. Somewhat like getting your driving licence. You’re supposed to know the theory of driving and have a little experience. You spend a significant amount of time after the test still learning, you can not drive every where and would not risk your life or anyone else’s by doing so. After passing your test and getting your licence you are still learning. You may decide to do some motorway lessons or take an advanced driving qualification but you would not attempt to drive round Brands Hatch without a crash helmet or an experienced tutor in tow. And you wouldn’t do that straight after your test. Agencies are providing, for job interviews, signers who have barely started their lessons and haven’t been on the road long enough to do justice to a Deaf person in an interview. Some of these agencies, Deaf-led.

Now signers: once registered you are signed up to a Code of Conduct that says you should not accept work for which you do not have the skills. It happens to all of us that once in a while we do a less than fantastic job but it is not acceptable to accept jobs and put people at risk knowingly. Through strong networks of support future interpreters could tap into that knowledge and throughout their study it was drummed into them that they should not work in certain areas. Why is that message not getting through? Is it the economic climate that takes precedent? Of course people need to work. The common term in the community was ‘cowboy interpreter’. Perhaps we should resurrect that phrase as it needs no further explanation. In a small community many future interpreters were concerned about taking on jobs for fear of ruining their future reputation. Perhaps this is less of a worry when you are given an endless stream of jobs by agencies who flout the conventions held up by the community for so long. There is now less motive to actually do more qualifications with a goal to becoming registered.

So why in the mystery shoppers survey did so many agencies recommend a CSW for a job interview and why are the Deaf community not up in arms about this?

Cost.

The myth is that the interpreter is expensive. No. Agencies are. The consumer pays more and quite frequently gets a reduction in quality of service provision as made apparent from the amount of agencies providing a CSW for a job interview.

At the higher cost end of the spectrum it was clear that many spoken language agencies were ripping off the consumer with a ridiculous profit margin. If they source an unqualified signer it would cost them in the region of £50. A 250% mark up. At least.

What is also apparent from the cheaper end of the spectrum is that you get what you pay for. Some agencies with cheaper costs are the ones taking advantage of the market to squeeze interpreters’ fees. All the Deaf person is going to get is someone with less experience. In some cases you do not get much for what you pay for. With a £5 difference per hour between a CSW and a registered interpreter it is clear which one is more value for money.

It is about time we saw a shift in the general mentality from ‘interpreters are too expensive’ to ‘my interpreter costs X because they are brilliant, reflect me well and I am more likely to get the job/get a promotion’. Until the whole of the Deaf community get behind the need for standards, for value for money, for regulation of interpreters and the right to quality then the whole system is in danger of imploding in on itself.

There is not enough space here to go into the problems of Access to Work budgets, that is a separate issue. There is not enough time to go into the problems we have with the current system. There is a clear need for real solutions. What we must not lose sight of is the following:

The government agenda within Access to Work is about right to control. In this situation the Deaf client had no control. The point that is oft repeated by ASLI’s Access to Work group to the DWP when representing ASLI members is that Deaf people should have the right to control, not from anyone in a free (mostly black) market but from a pool of registered and safe interpreters. That is the point of registration and the fact the consumer then has some kind of protection. When the booking is made by someone else, in this case the hearing consumer, all control is lost to the agency and consumer protection no longer exists.

Where are the rights of the Deaf person? Does anyone really believe the Deaf person would have got the job in the mystery shopping scenario with a CSW trying to interpret for their interview?

No. It’s about time we shifted the focus from cost to value. All of our aspirations should be higher rather than the self-imposed glass ceiling that is evident. It would be great if more Deaf people could earn more than the average interpreter (which for most of us after expenses is not that much). There are quite a few people out there that do. I’d imagine they understand the need for an experienced interpreter that offers value for money in order to break those barriers and truly see Deaf people gain work to their full potential.

CSWs – Register your Disinterest for proper Deaf access

We have an established register for interpreters, the NRCPD. Though not everyone has faith in that register. I would suggest that is partly due to interpreters regularly accepting work for which they are not skilled enough which has brought about the misconception that the RSLI standard is not good enough. I’d suggest it is in most cases but that interpreters need to be supported to gain experience gradually and safely. There has, as yet, been no moves towards creating a category for senior practitioners to distinguish the more experienced from those that have just started. There is in short no advanced driver equivalent as yet.

A recent letter from the NRPSI, the register for spoken language interpreters, asked for continued support from interpreters to strengthen the register and stated that they were working towards publicising the register.

Where there is little support for the NRCPD I suspect there are a few reasons:

1) Scant work to publicise to service users or commissioners that registration is of the utmost importance.

2) No regulation of agencies – a charter mark guaranteeing quality and adherence to standards would be a start.

3) The previously stated perception that standards have slipped.

4) The removal of the Code of Ethics. We have a weaker Code of Conduct. This was to bring us in line with others on the register. I’d suggest rather than weakening our Code, other professionals should have had the opportunity to abide by an ethical code rather than a pared down, prescriptive, behavioural code. Recent emails on e-groups have shown some interpreters barely understand the Code they purport to follow.

I think, just like the statement by NRPSI, that interpreters should support their register. If we are to be united, especially without a union, this is the only way. One caveat. For the register to be supported those that run it need to listen to the interpreters on that register and work towards making it as robust as possible i.e. if you are not on the register, you can not work as an interpreter.

The latest news and the subject which gets me blogging is astounding. It has been mooted for years and is incredibly unpopular with interpreters: the establishment of a register for CSWs. A letter and a proposal has been forwarded to NRCPD and a process is underway to develop a proposal and take this to further consultation.

I’d urge the NRCPD to think carefully about the disastrous effects this will have on Deaf students. Interpreters, once qualified and working for a few years, understand the difficulty of the job. It can not be done by those not yet assessed as fluent in BSL i.e those with level 2 and 3 qualifications.

Those that run CSW organisations, run training courses for CSWs or agencies that use CSWs usually have a vested interest: money or status. The only training CSWs should be doing is not how to perfect their interpreting into English or courses in international sign. There should be a single focus on the main language and interpreting qualifications in order to make them ‘safe’ and get people to the point where they can register for the sake of students and the wider Deaf community.

Use of CSWs rather than interpreters was only ever a stop gap in the 1980’s, and one which was supposed to be temporary. Harrington’s excellent paper The Rise, Fall and Re-invention of the Communicator: re-defining roles and responsibilities in educational interpreting still makes for interesting reading. This is the history of the CSW and one which various people with those vested interests have worked hard to continue. It is not in our interests to have those working with low fluency in BSL with Deaf children. Many Interpreters around the country who do not have enough work would jump at the chance to be Educational Interpreters. Anyone who supports the Deaf community knows that is what Deaf children and students deserve: proper access to their education.

For too long CSWs have been expected to fulfil the roles of interpreter, tutor, classroom assistant as Harrington states. I started my interpreting career as a CSW. I do not speak from a position of elitism. I speak as someone who understands the CSW as inadequately trained, as an influent and untrained pseudo-interpreter, as someone who is expected to do 80% plus of their work acting as an interpreter but who is ill-prepared and ill-trained.

The CSW course I experienced over nine months had little language training, no interpreter training and was, for me, a disappointment, a waste of time and a waste of money. Most people worked with little support and some were encouraged at the time of the promise of a career that they carried on in the route of interpreting until realising there were never going to be fluent enough to achieve registered interpreter status and eventually either gave up or remained as influent untrained pseudo-interpreters.

Not only do we miss the chance to increase standards for Deaf students but a CSW register puts a proverbial nail in the coffin for anyone campaigning for higher standards of access in schools. The names of CSWs will not be used for education only but agencies will access them as lists of cheap labour to do the job of interpreting in hospitals, in councils, in offices. There is enough confusion surrounding standards and registration categories as it is, a confusion most of us work towards alleviating.

I can see the benefits to the NRCPD of ensuring this proposal goes through: increased revenue from registrations, increased use of the registers by those involved with the Deaf community, an increased profile extended to schools, colleges, universities and all those agencies that will continue to use CSWs to fulfil bookings. I also understand the NRCPD may have to entertain proposals and be seen to be giving ideas a fair hearing without seriously considering the setting up of such a register.

In my opinion these are the risks if the NRCPD decides to go ahead with this proposal:

1) Of 1,082 professionals on the NRCPD registers, 977 are either Registered Interpreters, Translators or Trainees. In other words 90% of the registers. I can not imagine that many of that 90% would agree with a CSW register and would possibly add that to one of the above possible reasons for the NRCPD not getting their full support. Interpreters have already lost out to a weakened Code and some have felt they have not been listened to in previous consultations. It would not be wise to take an unpopular decision at this stage.

2) Signature would make less money from NVQ qualifications were people allowed or encouraged to go on a register and then not further develop their skills by achieving the National Occupational Standards in Interpreting.

3) Allowing a CSW register takes work away from interpreters at a time when they need the register to fight for them. If interpreters do not have enough work, they will not support or pay for continued registration.

4) A CSW register ignores the campaign work Deaf people and interpreters have done for over 25 years to raise standards. It is not a way to get buy-in from the community for whom you are supposed to be registering professionals.

5) It will negate any further campaign efforts by the community to raise standards in schools such as the parents who successfully campaigned the school their child was at and at the time managed to get agreement for a Trainee Interpreter.

There is more to say, these are just some initial thoughts. I await this news to hit the interpreting and Deaf communities with interest.

Making a Profit: A Deaf Wage?

Although we have had a two-tier system of access for the Deaf community since the register of interpreters was started, this is getting worse in our current economic climate.

By two-tier I mean the use of registered interpreters and the continued use of the unregistered signer who has yet to acquire the National Occupational Standards in order to be able to register.

We have seen what are called CSWs (Communication Support Workers) in education for a number of years. Started to plug a gap when interpreters were low in number, they no longer are, the use of the CSWs has spun out of control with many believing they are up to the job of interpreting. Many aren’t.

The term CSW has become a way of trying to give the untrained and often not fluent signer some credence, some recognition for the job of filling the gap and an excuse for service providers to say they have made a reasonable adjustment under British Law.

How did CSWs who were deemed suitable for education in the 1980’s become a stop gap for other areas such as community bookings and employment (funded by the government through its Access to Work scheme)?

Even some agencies who state they only use reigstered interpreters use them in other areas. Two I know use them for office interpreting with Deaf staff and one uses them both for their education service and as employment consultants. Whichever way you couch it the work this personnel is doing is interpreting i.e. translating from Sign Language to English or English to Sign Language. As much as an agency can say it only uses registered interpreters, it does not if it only adheres to those standards for certain areas.

So why does this two-tier system exist? Mainly profit and a few myths in existence which now no longer apply:

There are not enough interpreters… We have more interpreters on the register than ever and some are struggling to find work.

Interpreters are expensive…

a) The truth is that many agencies are expensive with some charging 50% more than the fee an interpreter charges. When you use an agency for your Access to Work interpreting it is your budget that is being eaten away in fees to that middle man.

b) CSWs are cheaper and more flexible. Many are not and charge similar prices to interpreters. Someone told me recently of someone with level 2 earning £40k a year by their own admission. Not bad for a GCSE qualification and someone is paying them. That does not constitue value for money by anyone’s standards.

Using agencies for public service contracts will save money…

Many signers are working at community bookings, mostly at the hands of spoken language agencies (one previous example I
have quoted of a level 3 signer in court was a spoken language agency). Having been successful in winning a contract or even a sub-contract many agencies find their profit margin decreases so they must squeeze the fees of the interpreter. FOI requests show per booking the cost of providing a signer was no cheaper than a registered interpreter. The cost of having to book an interpreter, often to repair the damage a signer did, can be worse. Use a cowboy, you usually then have to spend more to fix it.

In this two-tier market there are agencies and CSWs who continue to make a living out of the Deaf community without care or concern for the potential damage they do or the reduction in choice for the Deaf client.

There has been a phrase that Deaf people have used to denote a living someone makes from the Deaf community by someone that gives nothing back. It has been said that the person is making a ‘Deaf wage’.

Regardless of whether your marketing suggests you give something back, if you or your business make a profit by supporting this two-tier system, I suggest you could be deemed as earning a Deaf wage.